By Kimberly J. Avalos, Noah Caldwell and Zach Williams
Video by Kimberly J. Avalos
Ofra, West Bank — The Ofra settlement in the West Bank is now 40 years old, a middle-aged island of Jews in a sea of Palestinians that can easily be mistaken for a Southern California suburb. Bikes quietly line the streets and young children innocently sit on their leafy yards, oblivious to the complicated disarray surrounding the homes around them.
“It’s quiet living,” said Hava Stein-Yosef, a resident born in Ofra. “Some of (the reasons people live here) is because of religion, but mostly there is a good education and it’s a good place to raise kids.”
While some of the 4,000 residents in the Jewish settlement seek to enjoy ordinary and comfortable lives in Ofra — such as Stein-Yosef and her family — religious Zionists like spokesperson Aaron Lipkin largely inhabit it.
Lipkin proudly stands on the ancient hilltops overlooking what many Jews refer to their biblical homeland of Judea and Samaria, given to Abraham by God himself.
“Lift up your eyes and looking to the distance. East, west, south and north, and see all the land which I’m giving to you and your descendants forever,” Lipkin reads from the Torah.
However, a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court contradicts Lipkin’s statement. Nine houses in Ofra are set to be demolished in February 2017 after the Supreme Court ruled they were built illegally on private land owned by Palestinians.
“This is very, very saddening and we hope that it will not happen eventually,” Lipkin said. “I can tell you that the people that are living here are not going to go without fighting.”
The Palestinian landowners who reside in Ein Yabrud, along with human rights organizations petitioned the High Court of Justice to halt construction of the nine houses being built on their land in 2008. Construction continued and families have moved into the stone structures, but they are expected to evacuate by February 2017.
Ofra’s situation is complicated because many of the homes are situated on land that is privately owned by Palestinians, however it is considered a legal settlement under Israeli law because the government approved it in the 1970s.
Successive Israeli governments have given financial support to settlers in Ofra and in other settlements. In Lipkin’s view and that of other religious Zionists, the Jew’s return to the ancient hilltops is a homecoming after an era of turmoil for the exiled Jewish population.
“We came here after two thousand years of exile,” said Lipkin. “After terrible 2,000 years of persecution, but we came back here because that is what was prophesized in the Bible.”
Many Israelis oppose the settlements believing they are a roadblock to a two-state solution and eventual peace.
“There is a conflict between Israelis,” said Ariel Zuckerman, who lives outside of Tel Aviv but often visits his brother in Ofra. “Is it good to be here or is it bad to be here? Is it good or bad to the Palestinians?”
However, he says the impending demolishment of the houses in Ofra will not resolve the differences in public opinion.
“It’s important to live here for lots of reasons,” Zuckerman said. “By the history, Jews lived here. So it’s like we just came back home.”
The Palestinian Authority, which controls some cities in the West Bank, says only the complete evacuation of Israeli settlements is compatible with peace.
“Peace and settlements are two lines that never meet,” said Abbas Zaki, a senior minister in the Palestinian Authority. “We need land without settlements in order to make peace. If the Israelis choose to live with us, they are more than welcome. But they are Palestinians, not Israelis.”